|USSR, Mezhrabpomfil'm, 1928
B&W, Silent with English intertitles, 126 minutes
Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin
Screenplay: Osip Brik
Cinematography: Anatolii Golovnia
Filmed in the Buriat-Mongolian Republic, Vsevolod Pudovkin's Heir of Ghengis Khan (Storm Over Asia) opens in 1918 at the deathbed of an old Mongolian. Bair, a Mongol fur trader, is advised by the dying elder to travel to the market and sell a pelt of exquisite quality: "Food for many months," as the intertitle notes. After demanding a fair price for this pelt from a British capitalist who "buys cheap and sells dear," Bair ignites a marketplace riot and is forced to flee to the mountains. The narrative then jumps to 1920. Bair has been living in the tundra for two years and there is fighting on the Eastern front between the partisans and the White Russians (supported by American and British battalions). Bair is captured by the British at the partisan camp and an amulet is discovered on his person, suggesting that he is a direct ancestor of twelfth-century warrior Ghengis Khan. Upon this discovery, British officers plot to install him as a puppet leader on the Mongolian throne in their attempt to strengthening their power over the territory.
Unlike many of his earlier films (Mother and The End of St. Petersburg), Pudovkin's goal in Heir of Ghengis Khan was narrative clarity, stylistic uniformity, and popular appeal. He had recently been criticized for shifting between competing styles of montage in The End of St. Petersburg, and so Heir of Ghengis Khan underwent tests with focus groups of schoolchildren to ensure that its ideological messages were easily appreciated. The results of these trials were overwhelmingly positive and the messages of the intertitles were praised for their intelligibility: "Listen to Moscow / that is where Lenin lives," reads one title. Heir of Ghengis Khan was Pudovkin's second to last silent film (followed by Life is Beautiful, 1933).
In a 1929 article, a year after the film's release, Pudovkin made clear his desire to incorporate new sound technology into his films: he noted where he would have used sound in Heir of Ghengis Khan to establish conflict between shots and to complement the montage of the film. Sound, Pudovkin declared, "must be included in the raw material of cinema art."
The version of Heir of Ghenghis Khan screened at this year's Russian Film Symposium includes documentary footage of the feast of Tsai, an important Buddhist rite. Pudovkin and his crew were given permission to film the Bogdo Lama, the religious ruler elevated in 1911 to be the head of Mongolian territory as a monarch with unlimited power. The highly choreographed dance scenes included in the film were only performed once and in order to capture the action of the ritual, cameraman, Anatolii Golovnia, had to strap the camera to his chest and operate it manually, turning the handle through 5,000 meters of film.
Although the Heir of Ghengis Khan takes place in present-day Mongolia (Mongolia was not established as a republic until 1924), the narrative of the film is centered on Moscow as the ideological center: "Lenin ... / Moscow ... / go to the Russians, they are good and strong" reads one intertitle. This Moscow-centrism presents the supposed "ethnic inclusively" of the Soviet Union—Mongolians and Russians fight side by side in the partisan camp—but at the same time depicts the Mongols only with orientalized rhetoric and imagery. While the British capitalists are plump and adorned with metals, the Mongolians are exotic, mystical, and inextricably linked to nature. Golovnia's static camera often shoots the Mongolian actors from above. Their bodies are dwarfed by, and assimilated into, the vast, anemic landscapes of the tundra. Their action is juxtaposed with animals fighting, rock formations, stampedes, and wind blowing over dunes. Although the extent versions of the film include numerous scenes of Mongolian "exoticism," the original 1928 version incorporated even more ethnographic footage: Mongolians buying and selling goods in the market, market performers dancing and juggling in the street, and peasants frantically pushing one another out of the way to hear a record player.
The final frames of Heir of Ghengis Khan reinforce these competing forces in the film—subsuming Mongolia as a territory under Moscow and marking the Mongolians as ethnically other (of different blood than the "white man," as the intertitles tell us). Bair, in an explosion of anger after the murder of another Mongol with "Khan blood," gallops across the steppe with his band of Mongolian followers. The hooves of their horses stir up the sand below, inciting a storm that rips up trees, tears guns from hands, and overpowers the Western army with the sheer force of nature. On the surface, this uprising appears to be a rebellion of Mongolians peasants—friends of Moscow—against capitalism. The final intertitle of the film, however, reinforces the view that bloodlines and ethnicity are of equal importance to class affiliation: "O, my people / rise ... / in your ancient strength /and free yourselves!"
The original score to Heir of Ghengis Khan will be performed by Antithesis, the avant-garde ensemble of the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts under the direction of Mr. Benjamin Opie and Mr. Richard McNerny.
Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin (1893-1953)
Pudovkin, a chemist turned director, studied with Vladimir Gardin (The Keys to Happiness, 1913) before entering the workshop of Lev Kuleshov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924). Pudovkin wrote the scripts for Kuleshov's Mr. West and The Death Ray (1925). Pudovkin also worked as a set designer and an actor, appearing in all of his own films. His influential theories of montage and sound appear in his numerous articles and two books: Film Director and Film Material (1926) and Film Scenario and Its Theory (1926).
1921 Hammer and Sickle